Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Lose the Fence

KIEV, Ukraine -- Bankova, the street that’s home to the State Secretariat as well as to other important Ukrainian government buildings, has for a while been closed off to the public. As Ukraine this week marks the anniversary of the start of the Orange Revolution, it’s an excellent time to point out that that’s a disgrace.

Bankova Street at start of "Orange Revolution" in November 2004

Actually, closing off Bankova represents a step backward even from the miserable standards of former President Leonid Kuchma’s government. During the Kuchma years, Bankova was – sensibly – closed to motor traffic. But any pedestrian was free to walk past the sentry posts and the vehicle barrier and access the street. The Kuchma administration was famous for treating Ukrainian citizens with the utmost contempt, but that the street was open, at least, was how it should have been.

Bankova, of course, played a central role in the Orange Revolution. Protestors clogged both its Instytutska and Lyuteranska intersections, facing down riot police in tense and by now famous stand-offs. The riot barricades that the government threw up to protect the strategically important street from the orange hordes were symbols of what the revolution was fighting. When Yulia Tymoshenko breached them and was handed into the inner sanctum, she provided one of the uprising’s iconic moments.

Soon after President Viktor Yushchenko finally took office, he ripped down not only the ad hoc riot barriers, but also the permanent Bankova fences, in a recognition of their symbolic importance. His stirring statement at the time was to the effect that his government didn’t need any fences there at all – his crew, unlike Kuchma’s, did not fear the Ukrainian people.

What a difference the better part of a year makes. Now Bankova is closed off completely. You can’t walk down it at all anymore.

As the Orange Revolution’s anniversary comes, the new fence is obviously a symbol to be used by anyone who would like to make a point about the insufficiencies of the Orange Revolution, and about how, supposedly, not enough has changed since the Kuchma days. The new fence is therefore a terrible idea for symbolic reasons, and an index of the president’s strangely wishy-washy political personality.

Yushchenko often seems politically tone deaf, but this represents a new frontier in strategic fecklessness. On the other hand, maybe Yushchenko hasn’t been tone deaf and feckless – maybe he really does fear the Ukrainian citizenry, and want to keep it as far away from himself as possible. It’s increasingly the tragedy of Yushchenko’s career that one never really knows exactly what motivates him, or where he stands.

Besides, it’s not as if blocking off Bankova, which we understand was an initiative of Internal Affairs department chief Ihor Tarasyuk, is all that necessary for security. Back in the Kuchma days, Bankova was a very tightly controlled street. Given all the machinegun-toting guards around, the pedestrian felt a bit uncomfortable and stared-at there, which was not inappropriate.

It seems to us that anyone causing trouble on Bankova back then would have lasted mere seconds before he was dropped. It also seems to us that the government need not fear the excessively disruptive potential of citizen protests. Let the guards simply put waist-high barriers up to keep people away from the doorways, as is already done in front of parliament.

There’s nothing except a superfluous bit of false security to be gained by erecting a fence between the citizenry and the government. It’s impractical, too. The House of Chimeras, arguably Kyiv’s most famous building, is now off-limits, which is ridiculous.

President Yushchenko, in the spirit of the Orange Revolution that we’re all celebrating this week, tear down that fence.

Source: Kyiv Post Editorial

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